What's really going on in Makhatini - welcome to the debt trap (21/5/2003)

21 May 2003

What's really going on in Makhatini - welcome to the debt trap

A group of GM cotton farmers from the Makhatini Flats in South Africa has been brought to London by Monsanto's PR agency to help lobby British parliamentarians and officials and meet the media. Farmers from Makhatini have already been taken to many other places around the world to spread the word on the extraorinary benefits Monsanto has brought to Makhatini.

Here Haidee Swanby of Biowatch South Africa responds to a query about what's really going on in Makhatini. Haidee's reply includes some fascinating excerpts from interviews with Makhatini farmers plus 2 related articles (items 2 and 3).

Haidee writes, "Those farmers you see promoting the technology in Europe have had huge assistance from Monsanto in terms of machinery, irrigation, crop management and access to credit. Only this small group will get such assistance which will ensure their yields are good. Others simply find themselves in a debt trap. The wife of the manager of Mboza Clinic, Mrs Nyati, even told me that they were seeing suicides in the area where farmers are drinking their chemicals because of the heavy debt they find themselves in."

1. What's really going on in Makhatini - includes excerpts from interviews with Makhatini farmers
2. Bt Cotton and Small Farmers in Makhatini - A Story of Debt, Dependency, and Dicey Economics
3. Drought ruins small farmers - National News
1. What's really going on in Makhatini
From: "Haidee Swanby" <[email protected]>
Sent: Tuesday, May 20, 2003 1:58 PM
Dear Jonathan

The same group of farmers was recently used to promote GE at a parliamentary conference held by our department of Agriculture in April. I found it interesting that the same man (Mr Gumede) who was on the podium telling the audience how rich all the farmers in Makathini are getting off Bt cotton, was quoted in a Sunday paper [see article below - item 3] saying that due to drought in the area, only 50% of farmers could continue to operate in the area. The article refers to Jozini, this is also on the Makathini flats.

A huge problem with such poor farmers buying Bt cotton is the extra expense; the seed costs almost double and then there is still a technology fee to pay (dryland seed - R230 for a bag of conventional seed and R450 for a bag of Bollgard plus a licence fee of R224 per hectare). When a disaster like drought wipes out the crop, they are in much deeper debt.  

Those farmers you see promoting the technology in Europe have had huge assistance from Monsanto in terms of machinery, irrigation, crop management and access to credit. Only this small group will get such assistance which will ensure their yields are good. Others simply find themselves in a debt trap. The wife of the manager of Mboza Clinic, Mrs Nyati, even told me that they were seeing suicides in the area where farmers are drinking their chemicals because of the heavy debt they find themselves in. I was shocked to hear this as I have heard the same has happened in India.

This technology is yet another short term fix which will create long-term problems:

- it promotes further use of industrial farming methods which require expensive seed, chemicals and machinary. Poor farmers cannot afford these inputs and are forced to take out huge loans which they can never pay back.

Traditional farming methods don't grow monocrops or use expensive inputs, instead diverse crops are grown together to give health and vigour to the ecology. Farmers are also traditionally communal; sharing seed and knowledge as a safety net in times of disaster. Industrial agriculture goes against these principles, not allowing farmers to share or save seed, obliging them to return year after year to buy seed from corporations. What's more, they pay royalties on the seed which further enrich the pockets of northern based corporations. This kind of dependency creates perpetual wealth for corporations, not small farmers.

- not 1 of the 22 or so farmers I spoke to knew what genetic engineering/modification/gmo was. all assumed it was simply a new kind of hybrid, referring to it as "new cotton". None of them were aware of the global debate and controversy surrounding this technology. None of the farmers knew what was in the contract they had signed, many don't speak english or are illiterate.

- ge cotton is already showing signs of resistance to the pests it is supposed to kill. Contracts oblige farmers to grow a "refuge" to slow down resistance. But many do not know about this, and the requirement that they grow a refuge simply shows that the developers are aware that resistance will eventually set in. Farmers will then need to go back to much stronger cocktails of poisons to control the pests.

- Bt only controls bollworm, but outbreaks of other pests such as aphids and jassids are becoming more serious and farmers still need to spray for these

- Not one environmental impact assessment has ever been carried out to see how GE crops are impacting on our ecology. It is scientifically reasonable to suspect that bt is causing problems throughout the entire food chain as it introduces large amounts of a novel protein into the ecology which can be poisonous to beneficial creatures such as earthworms and butterflies. But it is not possible to ascertain the damage without the research and monitoring being done.

- power relations within the community have changed due to the huge lobbying power cotton farmes now have with big corporations behind them. for instance, the flooding regime has been changed to suit cotton farmers, leaving subsistance farmers without water at crucial times of the year.

Some excerpts from farmers in Biowatch interviews - November 2002 - which show some of the complexities around the introduction of genetically engineered cotton

Ruben Ngwengwe, winner of the cotton grower of the year award: Did you sign a contract? Yes.

Do you know what is in the contract? No. There was a workshop for 2 days for training and information about the contract, but it was in English, they said it would take 4 days if they have to translate. So I was there but it was a waste of time. (the contract states, amongst other things, that he will plant a refuge, and he will not save or share seed. A refuge is a certain percentage of the crop which is not genetically engineered, this is a measure to slow down the inevitable resistance which bollworm will develop to the GE crop)

Clive Poultney: representative of Lubombo Waterways Project - an association of people who use the Makhathini Floodplains and decide together on what water needs they have. He explained that although only 10% of the farmers growing cotton are planting in the flood plain, it is becoming a threat to food security and the complex eco-system which sustains thousands of people, including people in Mozambique and Swaziland. Too little water has been released this year, and there are reports that DWAF (Dept. Water Affairs & Forrestry) will hold back until April next year to give the cotton farmers adequate time to harvest. People growing food on the floodplain face not having water at appropriate times and are also concerned that cotton is being planted deep into the floodplain and they are not keen on chemicals leaching into their water.

In the past there has always been discussion and compromise on how the water should be managed in order to suite human and ecological needs. This is not the case with cotton where there has been no consultation whatsoever and the cotton cycle is totally at odds with previous agreements.  

Poultney: "They seem to think that the people on the flood plain are a bunch of disorganised idiots, but when these people get organised, you see organisation. If they want war, that is what they will get!"

Mr Delport: farmer
He does not farm cotton very seriously, he is contracted to do soil preparation for small scale farmers and cotton is really a "gap filler" in the hotter months to make best use of his land. "Vegetables or absolutely anything can grow here in winter. On the whole cotton is not a very lucrative crop - you only get R2.70 per kilo from Vunisa and the prices are dropping even further world-wide. The new ginnery does not really make sense as there is already sometimes so little cotton that Vunisa sends it to Swaziland for processing. The ginnery seems to have something to do with spending money that is lying around rather than any real attempt to bring wealth to the ground.  There are always stories about new developments coming to Makhathini but they never seem to actually happen".

Mr Mthembu: farmer - is in a cycle of loans and debt, he says that "there is a lot of money but the loan eats up the profits. Farmers are simply managers of the seed companies crops". Although he did sign the contract, he does not know what it contains, nor does he understand the concept of licensing - only that it is expensive! He has never heard of a refuge and obviously doesn't plant one.

Mrs Nyati: wife of Mboza Clinic manager Zeph Nyati: said that she was worried about how farming was changing in the area. She particularly did not like living in between 2 small-scale cotton farmers as they use a lot of chemicals. She was worried about health and the pollution of water and soil. She said that most farmers in the area were in very deep debt and some of them had committed suicide by drinking their pesticides.  

Haidee Swanby
Biowatch South Africa
Media & Training
Tel: +27 (0)21 447 5939
Fax: +27 (0)21 447 5974
e-mail - [email protected]

2. Bt Cotton and Small Farmers in Makhatini - A Story of Debt, Dependency, and Dicey Economics

South Africa is under the spotlight as the first country in the world in which small-scale farmers are planting genetically modified crops. Since 1998, farmers in the Makhatini floodplains of northern Kwa-Zulu Natal have been growing Bt cotton, reportedly with high levels of success and adoption. This is now Monsanto's flagship project and no time has been lost in generating propaganda to convince the rest of the world of the alleged benefits of genetic engineering for small farmers and food security. But this project might also be a miscalculated public relations disaster. Here is the other story.

High dependency. The uptake of genetically engineered cotton at Makhatini has been made possible only through strong government backing for the project. Combined efforts of the South African Department of Agriculture, Monsanto, Vunisa (a private company) and the Landbank have guaranteed farmers easy access to markets for their crops and credit to purchase inputs. Farmers have thus become highly dependent on outside actors - and highly vulnerable to the vagaries of the private sector.

Unequal access. The glitz around Makhatini fails to reveal that it is not the most marginalized producers that are benefiting from Bt cotton, but rather the larger cotton producers that have access to land and - most importantly - to credit to enable purchase of the very costly Bt cotton seeds.  

Debt trap. Those farmers able to access credit are locked in a debt-cycle. The Land Bank provides loans to cotton farmers because they get cash in hand as soon as they deliver to the ginneries. In other words there is a ready market for their cotton. This puts the farmers in a very precarious position and a failed crop will mean that they will not be able to buy seed the next season. Moreover, South Africa is in the midst of liberalizing its cotton market and is increasingly vulnerable to price fluctuations. Reductions in cotton prices will be devastating for small farmers already operating under marginal conditions.

Short-lived benefits. Reduced insecticide use is one of the advantages touted by proponents of Bt cotton at Makhatini, although it seems that spraying for bollworms has continued even among farmers that have adopted the technology. While Bt cotton may have initial management benefits, experiences from around the world suggest these to be short-lived. No variety can remain resistant to all pests and diseases and in the province of Mpumalanga, commercial farmers planting Bt cotton are already returning to normal spraying patterns because of outbreaks of secondary insects such as aphids, leafhoppers and stinkbugs. There have also been cases of farmers losing their entire crop because they did not spray. Commercial farmers in South Africa can take this risk, but for small-scale farmers, the loss of one harvest can be catastrophic.  

Planting in Ignorance. Farmers planting Bt cotton do so with no understanding of the technology, or of their obligations under the licensing contracts they sign with Monsanto. Biowatch research has revealed that farmers understand their contracts to mean that in the case of a crop failure, the seed will be replaced. They are not aware that they should plant a refuge, that the insects might develop resistance over time, or that during some seasons they will have to spray for unexpected insect outbreaks. Although Monsanto is happy to spend millions of dollars in promoting this case and 'educating' the global public, it is not at all bothered to ensure that the most basic information of all is conveyed to its peasant clients.
3. National News, Sunday 13 Apr 2003
Drought ruins small farmers
[BURNT OUT: Belina Masango with her wilting plants. Picture: THABO MKHIZE]

Thokozile Gumede had a bumper cotton crop last year, harvesting 14 bales from her patch of land. This year, it will be a miracle if she can harvest a single bale.  One of more than 3 000 small-scale cotton-growers from Biva, outside Jozini in northern KwaZulu-Natal, the mother of six children faces a bleak future after drought destroyed her crop.  The drought has even cancelled out the increased yields gained by farmers who have switched to using genetically modified seeds.

Gumede, who started growing cotton on her 1.6ha plot eight years ago, described this season as the worst ever.  " Nothing is going well and the plants are just dying. Lack of water and extreme heat have dealt us a huge blow. It is worse for farmers like me who depend on rain to water our plants because we don't have irrigation systems. "

Her husband's two other wives and their two eldest children, who are cotton-growers, have also been knocked by the drought. One of the wives, Belina Masango, said almost the entire community depended on cotton farming for their survival.

Phineas Gumede, chairman of the KwaZulu-Natal Cotton Growers' Association, said this season only 50% of farmers were operating and he suspected the number could go down to about 45% in the coming season. -

Thabo Mkhize

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